We hear so much about homeland security, but no one knows what it means. We believe it is the role of the government to protect its citizens, but sometimes you wonder.

It's October and America has just been notified that there will be a serious shortage of flu vaccine this winter. Why were we notified so late?

Let's try the "stupid bureaucracy" theory. The government knew for months that there was going to be a shortage, but each health supervisor said: "It isn't my department. Besides, I have to go to lunch." The warning did not reach the White House and no one in Congress wanted to call a hearing during an election year.

Then there is the "faulty intelligence" theory. Since the vaccine was made in Britain, the CIA should have known about the shortage. The CIA said it did hear from its man in London, who reported that the drug company would stop making "vaccines of mass destruction" because some of them were contaminated. But headquarters in Washington was slow to report the danger to the president, because the information came from an agent who was a notorious hypochondriac.

Finally, the intelligence was passed on to the State Department, which assured the United Nations that there would not be a flu epidemic in the United States this year.

Over at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense, when asked if the flu would strike this winter, said, "We don't live in a perfect world." He added, "Half the number of flu sufferers is better than none at all." He promised the flu epidemic would be over in three years. The secretary assured the country that all members of the armed forces would be issued a box of Kleenex as part of their fighting equipment.

Also floating around Washington is the "conspiracy theory." The White House knew there would be a vaccine shortage but wanted to keep it a secret until after the election. The people who got the flu might be the swing voters -- at least those who made it to the polls and didn't have a temperature of more than 102 degrees.

How is the president reacting to all this? Very presidentially. As commander in chief, he is asking healthy citizens not to take the vaccine this year. Only jobless senior citizens should have the shot. The president has promised a tax cut to anyone who gets sick.

"This is hard work," he said. "Very hard work. It is even harder than that. God bless all the flu sufferers."

Another option is to persuade China to manufacture the vaccine. They already have the Asian flu, so they won't have to retool their plants for the Western flu. Besides, the Chinese can make it much more cheaply than any British drug company. The outsourcing of flu vaccine manufacturing to China could be called "oil for viruses."

As part of my research, I called Homeland Security Disease Control and asked, "In case I can't get a flu shot, what should I do?"

The man who answered the phone replied, "Go about your business as usual, take two aspirin, drink plenty of liquids, and if someone sneezes on you, report them to the FBI."

(c) 2004, Tribune Media Services